Panel Seeks to Safeguard Biological Research

A federal panel met this week in a Washington, D.C., suburb to discuss safeguards to keep biological research of out of terrorists' hands. The goal is to avoid slowing down progress without creating new tools for terror.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, hungry is as hungry does at a buffet in Robertsdale, Alabama.

But first, a new federal panel met this week. Its mission is to find ways to keep critical biological research out of the hands of terrorists, and that could mean unfamiliar restrictions for scientists. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA reporting:

It's now possible to create large pieces of DNA in the laboratory. Geneticist J. Craig Venter plans to use that capability to make new synthetic organisms. He hopes those organisms will be able to do wonderful things like remove carbon dioxide from the air or replace fossil fuels. But Venter realizes these new synthetic tools can also be used to make dangerous organisms like deadly viruses.

Dr. J. CRAIG VENTER (Geneticist): Any sequence viral genome can be made today, and if we don't treat that as a scientific fact, we're making a grave error.

PALCA: Venter was one of the scientists testifying at the newly formed National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. It met for the first time this week in a Washington suburb. Venter argues that, for the most part, the new research won't be helpful to terrorists, and shouldn't be restricted or kept secret.

Dr. VENTER: I think it's important to keep in mind, though, that the DNA from a large number of species, such as Ebola and smallpox, is not infective on its own, and just having a genome won't buy anybody anything.

PALCA: But there are times when research intended to help find cures for infectious diseases could also help terrorists make a bioweapon. The new panel must consider whether the benefits of publishing such a paper are outweighed by the risks it might pose to national security. Michael Osterholm is a member of the new board. Osterholm is a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota. He says the board faces a difficult balancing act.

Professor MICHAEL OSTERHOLM (University of Minnesota): I like to liken it to the idea of surfing at Maui where it's 60-foot waves. If you're too far forward, you're dead. If you're too far back, you're dead. But if you're right on top of the wave, it's a hell of a ride. And I think our job is going to be riding that wave to basically figure out how to not slow down progress in taking on the world of microbes, but at the same time not providing opportunities for someone to create great harm from those explosion of tools that we're creating today with our microbes.

PALCA: Hanging over the panel was a real example of those dilemmas that arose just this week. A paper appeared in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described how the nation's milk supply could be poisoned using a biological toxin. The paper suggested ways to mitigate the threat, but it also gave details about how such an attack could be carried out. Harvard's Barry Bloom was in charge of picking the scientists who reviewed the paper.

Dr. BARRY BLOOM (Harvard University): Each reviewer was asked whether they thought it was a security threat or not, and this paper didn't slip in because that was not a concern of the scientists involved. They all thought about it, and none of them thought this gave away anything that the terrorists didn't already think about.

PALCA: But the Department of Health and Human Services disagreed and tried to stop publication. The new biosecurity panel could propose rules that would give federal agencies the power to quash papers they deem to be threats. Whatever the panel does, it will be done in the open. Harvard's Dennis Kasper is the panel chairman.

Mr. DENNIS KASPER (Harvard University): This isn't some closed biosecurity group meeting cloistered away in a corner. We have an open forum. We have active discussion with the public. We want to be able to come up with recommendations that the public will know how they have been derived and that they'll be comfortable living with.

PALCA: But it's also just an advisory panel. Rajeev Venkayya is director for biological and chemical defense at the White House Homeland Security Council.

Mr. RAJEEV VENKAYYA (Homeland Security Council): While I think many people breathed a sigh of relief that the US government did not come out with an overreaching, draconian approach to biosecurity, no one should go to sleep thinking that the US government has stopped thinking about this.

PALCA: Venkayya says it's an issue that everyone involved in biological research should be thinking about. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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